Berlin Axes Utility Commission

BERLIN — Fourteen years after first becoming a town entity, the Berlin Utility Commission (BUC) was disbanded Monday with little in the way of protest. The elimination comes at a unique time, with the town finalizing negotiations for a new energy supplier this week.

At a public hearing held by the Mayor and Council, only Erik Quisgard, the head of the BUC, spoke up in defense of the organization.

“I disagree with the disbanding,” he said.

The commission’s primary role for the last decade and a half has been to advise the council on sewage, electric and water matters. According to Quisgard, the commission was formed with the goal of promoting citizen involvement in government. While he said that he understood the responsibility for any utility decisions rested on the shoulders of the council, in his opinion it was always better to have extra eyes looking at the problem.

Quisgard also disagreed with the reasoning for the dissolution of the commission. Mayor Gee Williams used the term “institutionalized conflict” to describe the friction between the BUC and the council, claiming that the issues between the groups were both counterproductive and long-standing, going back several years and multiple administrations.

Quisgard admitted there were conflicts but questioned the necessity of disbanding the commission over the disagreements. He felt that the bigger problem was with the council not fully utilizing the BUC as an asset.

Williams cited further justification for eliminating the commission during the hearing. He pointed out that the energy market had changed dramatically since the BUC was founded in 1997. Under the current circumstances, Williams expressed the opinion that the most efficient thing to do was to disband the commission, allowing the council to act faster.

After explaining his reasoning, Williams added that the decision to dissolve the BUC was neither hastily made nor his alone.

“I was persuaded over time to agree this is what needed to be done,” Williams said.

Most of the council agreed.

“Times have changed,” said Councilwoman Paula Lynch.

Both Lynch and fellow councilmember Elroy Brittingham were on the council when the BUC was originally founded.

“I’ve thought long and hard about it,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall.

Hall admitted that the need for timely decisions did not match well with the fact that the BUC only met a few times a month at most.

However, Hall stated that there was a need to keep the workings of the council transparent. She was of the opinion that citizens should be encouraged to participate in government as much as possible. Hall voted to oppose the disbanding but the ordinance passed easily with the rest of the council supporting it.

Despite eliminating the BUC over conflicts with the council, Williams stressed that none of those issues carried over to any personal degree. He thanked Quisgard and the other members for their commitment during their terms.

“It’s a lot of work without much recognition,” said Williams.

While the BUC has been disbanded, Williams hinted that a “redesigned” commission wasn’t out of the question and might come about, either in this administration or a future one.